Massachusetts has never seen a political contest like Representative Joe Kennedy’s challenge of incumbent US Senator Ed Markey. A high-profile election in the Commonwealth in the middle of a pandemic with very early voting — some voters perhaps casting ballots by mail this week.
All this has changed the calculus of Sunday night’s debate between the pair of Democratic politicians ahead of what has become a head-scratcher of a primary on Sept. 1.
After all, Sept. 1st is no longer primary day, now it’s just the last day state residents can vote in the primary. So for some chunk of voters, Sunday night wasn’t the first in a final stretch of three debates, but possibly the final debate they watch before they cast a ballot in their mailbox.
This raises the stakes. Usually, the final debate before the election is viewed as the most critical because it could leave the last impression in voters minds. It’s possible that the script has flipped this year and that this debate, some five weeks before Election Day, is the most important.
After all, late momentum won’t change a vote that is already cast. Further, right now is the moment when both candidates have an incentive to come out swinging. The sparse polling out there shows that Kennedy’s once 14-point lead last September went down to 6 points in February, but there hasn’t been reliable public polling on this race in months. Both campaigns seem to acknowledge that Kennedy is winning and that the campaign is tightening — it’s just where in single digits the campaign is that is in question.
As with previous debate scorecards, the Globe uses two criteria for grades. The first is debate performance. The second is whether the candidate did what they needed to do in the context of the campaign. For example, since Kennedy is the putative frontrunner, a tie on debate night preserves the status quo, whereas Markey needs to make up ground.
Let’s get to the grades.
Joe Kennedy III, challenger and US Representative, Newton
Neither candidate had a good debate performance. That wasn’t Kennedy’s fault or Markey’s fault. They struggled to land punches and put together any coherent lines of argument because they rarely had time to do so. Organizers at NBC 10 set up a debate that moved at such a rapid pace, it seemed to leave both candidates behind.
Markey has tried to turn this race into one where he is a progressive like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez running against a more establishment figure like, well, a Kennedy. This debate never went there, however, because Kennedy somehow was able to keep on offense much of the night.
That’s good enough for a marginally better grade, especially given the context of the campaign. No poll has ever shown Kennedy down, even though both sides say the race has tightened. If Kennedy entered the debate as a frontrunner, then he exits one, since little about this debate changed the race.
Ed Markey, incumbent US Senator, Malden
The first half of the hour was devoted to the messy business about how Markey made a non-progressive vote on immigration seven years ago. That was an established fact. Not an established fact was whether Kennedy took a similarly bad vote. It might have been very hard for voters to follow along in the sausage-making in Washington to know either way.
In the second half of the debate, Markey was on the defensive again about how much time he really spends in Massachusetts. His inability to answer follow-up questions by NBC 10 reporter Alison King is the stuff that Team Kennedy will likely make a digital ad of within 24 hours.
There wasn’t much that Markey could do at the moment, but it was political malpractice to keep asking for more time to defend himself on the issue, therefore extending the segment. No doubt, Markey would have preferred more time spent on any other topic that would make Kennedy defend himself, like Markey tried to do with a Kennedy vote on Puerto Rico.
Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker
No, Baker is not running for Senate.
But a big moment that people were left talking about after the debate was how two men trying to convince Massachusetts Democratic primary voters they are the most progressive person wouldn’t say for sure if they would vote against a Republican for governor in two years.
Baker has sky-high approval ratings. A big reason why is his support among Democrats and independents. But he was tacitly just told by two of the state’s biggest Democratic stars that he should run for a third term and they wouldn’t be that bothered if there was no credible Democratic challenger either.